Category Archives: Books

Notes

JustineJustine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue

from an unfinished review:

…by the Marquis de Sade and his book Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue, which might just as easily have been called The Philosophy of Psychopaths.

The story is about a virtuous girl, Justine, orphaned at 12, who, over the course of the next 14 years or so, falls one after the other into the clutches of the most depraved men in France. She is raped in every way imaginable, repeatedly beaten nearly to death, tortured at every stop, and generally treated as though her only value as a human being lies in her ability to please those stronger than herself — in whatever grisly or sexually violent manner that might be. Yet, through it all, Justine perseveres, preserving her piety and, spiritually if not physically, her virtue.

Sade opens the book with a dedication to Constance Quesnet, his companion and lover, in which he declares his aim to be to exalt virtue while condemning the crimes against it. It is, initially, a puzzling statement in the face of all that happens to poor Justine and in spite of her reactions to it. In fact, it isn’t until we have finally realized that we aren’t meant to feel compassion for Justine but rather contempt that it makes sense, as a joke, one to which Sade returns at the end of the novel.

Nevertheless, this is a philosophical work, even if it is about equal parts philosophy and violent pornography. Essentially (as laid out during long dialogues between Justine and her various tormentors), Sade believes that Man, being a product of Nature, not only comes by his baser instincts naturally, but ought to give full reign to them. Religion, law, morality, these are refuges of the weak, unnatural constructs that are abhorrent to the only law that matters, the law of Nature…

A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarkefallofmoondust

Trust me, I get it. I get that Clarke, as a boy, found astronomy, and the moon in particular, so fascinating that it shaped his entire subsequent career. For most of the rest of us, however, the moon — in and of itself — is a pretty barren and uninteresting hunk of rock and dust. Tourists on the moon. Well, sure; I’m certain that if things worked out a particular way, we would indeed see tourists on the moon. But the tourists — that’s the problem. What the tourists would see is a lot of uninteresting rock and dust. So Clarke tries to liven it up with a moonquake and the sinking of a “tourbus” into moondusty quicksand. With characters that about as dry as their environment. (In spite of one married man with the hots for a female tourguide. Clarke seems to have been enamored with the idea of plural marriage — that is, one man, multiple wives — yet it always comes across as a bit adolescent.) I gave up on this one a little past the one-third mark.

Have you seen that U-verse commercial that asks, “When a human lands on Mars, where will you be?” My guess is, I’ll be exactly where every other human currently living will be: in his grave.

Vanishing (Golden Egg)The Vanishing by Tim Krabbe

I’ll give Mr. Krabbe one thing: he can title a story. This one — touted these days as the “novel” that inspired two films, the Dutch Spoorloos and the later American version The Vanishing — called his book (which is really a novella) “The Golden Egg,” an excellent title. “The Vanishing” is a different story altogether, since the disappearance of the young hero’s girlfriend isn’t what this tale of obsession and horror is really about. After Spoorloos, this became a “cult” book, but Spoorloos is a great deal better. The Vanishing, which turns the ending on its head and thereby justifies its title, is, on the other hand, a great deal worse. Worth reading (if occasionally lax), but be smart and watch Spoorloos, as well.

Captivity (2007), story by Larry Cohen, written by Larry Cohen and Joseph Tura, and directed by Roland Joffé

Captivity_ver2

Fashion model Jennifer Tree (Elisha Cuthbert) is kidnapped and tortured by mysterious Saw-like serial killer. Even dumber than Saw. Cohen and Tura treat believability like Jack the Ripper treated women. With characters who have no discernibly human psychologies and a torture house that would confuse M.C. Escher. See Elisha forced to drink puréed body parts. Or better yet — don’t.

Four_Girls_in_White_1939_poster

Four Girls in White (1939), written by Endre Bohem and Nathalie Bucknall, directed by S. Sylvan Simon

Short (73 minutes) melodrama about a group of young women who enter the nursing profession for very different reasons. One of them, Norma Page (Florence Rice), hopes to find a stable, wealthy husband, and she inadvertently ruins the career of another who genuinely wants to help people. Buddy Ebsen, as an orderly named Express, is along for comic relief.

I can’t imagine anyone going out of their way to see this film, which is at best a painless way to blow an hour. That’s really why I watched it. One of the great things about early cinema is all the sub-90-minute movies. And sometimes these short ones are quite good: She Done Him Wrong, for example, at 66 minutes, or Detour (68), Cat People (73), or Attack of the Puppet People, at 79.

According to Wikipedia, one of the titles considered for this movie was Women in White, which would have been more accurate. Norma — that is, Florence Rice — was 32 when the movie was made and Pat — i.e., Ann Rutherford, who plays her younger sister — was 22. The other two were 31 and 21. Even the kids weren’t “girls” anymore. But you know what? I never would have recorded a movie with this plot and these actresses called Women in White. (See what I did there? I said, “actresses” instead of “actors.” I’m losing feminist points right and left.)

Diva by DelacortaDiva

I was sure Diva was the first in the Alba/Gorodish series of novels by Delacorta (Daniel Odier). But I was wrong. It was, however, the first translated into English, so I guess that explains my error.

Alba is a fourteen-year-old living with Gorodish, who is in his forties and has a thing for little girls. Their adventures began in Nana (when, I believe, Alba was just 13). The English editions are labelled as “mystery” novels, but this was from a time before the Great Genre Split. Nothing — and I mean nothing — is a mystery in Diva, other than the sorts of things that are unknown in all novels, like, I don’t know, how it’s all going to turn out. What it is, in today’s terminology, is a crime novel, or a crime thriller. (Although I’m not sure this is a good thing. Back in the day, one could get a variety of works all under the same general umbrella, thereby, perhaps, expanding one’s literary horizons a bit. Nowadays, it’s rather too easy to find a niche and bury yourself in it.)

It’s sort of tangentially about Alba and Gorodish, although they certainly play major roles. But the main plot is about Jules, a young Parisian motorcycle-riding courier for RCA in Paris, who suddenly finds himself being pursued by cops and criminals alike after a cassette tape containing incriminating evidence against a local mob boss is surreptitiously slipped into one of his saddlebags. Significantly, this isn’t the only illicit cassette tape in play. Jules is an opera lover who secretly captures high-quality live recordings of his favorite operas — and divas. Singing in Paris at the time is American diva Cynthia Hawkins, famous for her refusal to sign a recording contract. That doesn’t stop Jules, though, who happens to record what many believe is Hawkins’ single best performance. When this becomes known, record companies from all over the world desperately want that tape. With all this, plus the Alba/Gorodish relationship, as well as that of Jules and Cynthia Hawkins, there’s never a dull moment in this short book.

And, thankfully, I have the wonderful pink edition.

JustineJustine Redux

I stopped writing the review for Justine because I knew Sade’s aggravating philosophy was driving me toward a negativity I didn’t feel. Reading another genre novel doesn’t really take you anywhere new, but a classic…sometimes a classic will open new possibilities and ideas, and that’s what Justine did for me. Philosophical porn was something new for me, but of course it goes deeper than that. Yes, it becomes more difficult to take as the tortures Justine suffers become more outlandish, but Sade sprinkles it all with an exaggeration that, if not exactly humorous is at least calculated to distract you from taking it all too seriously. After all, he wants to make a point, not simply gross you out.

Then, too, his point isn’t entirely wrong, not to my way of thinking. He gets it partly right, even if his conclusion is egregiously off-base. He, an atheist himself, does what many atheists do. He denies Man the specialness he enjoys in religious constructs, relegating him to Nature, but then forgets that if Man is a product of Nature, then so, too, are all his feelings of good, virtue, responsibility, morality, and, indeed, religiosity. In other words, if Man is part of Nature, then Nature can’t be defined solely by what one sees outside of himself; its definition must be expanded to incorporate what he uniquely brings to the table. For Sade, though, it’s all a Darwinian struggle in which the weak — particularly women — must always submit to the strong.

But, again, that’s okay. I don’t have to agree with what you’re saying to be interested in hearing it.

Sphere (1987) by Michael Crichton

sphere-book♦♦♦♦½

One of the fun things about reading is coming across echoes of other books you’ve read. I recently finished After Worlds Collide, and in one scene, a couple of characters discover a kind of plaque or road marker left by an alien civilization. On it is a design; not words or any real picture, just a design. In some inexplicable way, that design seems somehow un-human. And now, in Sphere, etched upon the titular object, is another strange design, one which, again, the hero finds to be un-human. Now, these are basically two-dimensional abstract patterns. Humans, of course, are very familiar with both these dimensions, which have been well explored not just by artists but by billions of doodlers throughout history. I kind of figure just about any design imaginable has been rendered by someone at some time in history. And I sure can’t get my mind around such a drawing being so odd that it is essentially inconceivable, and therefore un-human. Nope, with all due respect to the authors, I’m just not buying it.

Happily, this being a Michael Crichton novel, that’s about the only thing that isn’t, on some level, believable. The guy was a master of milieu, whether the setting was a large corporation, a dinosaur theme park, or a deep sea Navy habitat.

That’s where we find ourselves here, a thousand feet down in the Pacific ocean, where the Navy is investigating a very large, very strange vessel at least 300 years old. But it isn’t any boat; it’s a spacecraft.

Though the Navy is in charge of the overall mission, the primary investigators are a group of civilian scientists — a mathematician, an astrophysicist, a zoologist, and a psychologist. This allows Crichton to attack the problem of the ship, and the mysterious sphere found inside, on a number of different fronts. But Norman, the psychologist, is the hero. He’s there to keep everyone working together smoothly, a decidedly difficult job under the best of circumstances, given the egos and insecurities of the other scientists.

But these are hardly ideal circumstances. First of all, there’s all that crushing water above them. Farther up still, a cyclone blows in and sends the support vessels running for safe haven. Meanwhile, down below, strange things begin happening. And then the monsters attack.

In broad outline, that might sound like any number of other books you’ve read or movies you’ve seen, and it is. The difference is that Crichton handles it all ridiculously well. In an early scene, Norman discovers that Harry, the mathematician, tried to make out his will shortly after arriving in the habitat. It’s a small detail, but one that pays off not once, but twice during the course of the story, in two different ways. A Crichton thriller is anything but ham-handed  (State of Fear being, perhaps, the exception that proves the rule).

In fact, it’s Crichton’s subtlety that can make him difficult to synopsize: everything connects and whatever you might mention comes off sounding like a spoiler. The truth is, beneath the outline, the details of the story aren’t the typical blend of science fiction and horror. There’s the ship, for example, and the sphere, and the monsters…but I’ll just have to leave it at that.

This is one of Crichton’s best books, and Crichton at his best is exciting, suspenseful, funny, and perfectly plausible.

Hell House (1971) by Richard Matheson

HellHouse♦♦♦♦

When physicist Lionel Barrett asks for a list of phenomena observed in the Belasco house, popularly known as Hell House, it contains about a hundred alphabetical entries, of which the following are the P’s:

“…Paraffin molds; Parakinesis; Paramnesia; Paresthesia; Percussion; Phantasmata; Poltergeist phenomena; Possession; Precognition; Presentiment; Prevision; Pseudopods; Psychic photography; Psychic rods; Psychic sounds; Psychic touches; Psychic winds; Psychokinesis; Psychometry…”

This is, clearly, one badass house. Barrett is the nominal leader of a small group of investigators hired by Rolf Deutsch, its dying owner, whose mission is to establish conclusively whether or not there is survival after death. Barrett doesn’t think so; Florence Tanner, a mental medium, disagrees; and Ben Fisher, a physical medium and the only sane survivor of a previous investigation years before, agrees with Florence — but he’s there less to prove anything to Deutsch than to avenge his previous failure. Edith, Barrett’s seemingly timid wife, is along for the ride.

It’s a wild ride, to be sure. This is not a book that skimps on its supernatural manifestations. Spirit guides, poltergeist activity, possession, teleplasmic extrusions — the list, like the one Barrett receives at the beginning of the book, goes on and on. You want action? You’ve found it.

To Matheson’s credit, it isn’t, however, mindless mayhem. He doesn’t toss a ghost in the house and figure anything goes. Matheson weaves together the personalities of his investigators with the sordid history of the Belasco house to create a believable framework for all the insanity.

Belasco, we learn early, was a man pulled from the pages of something by the Marquis de Sade. He established his house as a haven for depravity, debauchery, and criminality. Torturers and victims alike were tormented beyond endurance; any or all of them could be haunting the house.  Indeed, when the house was finally opened by police, everyone (except Belasco himself) was found dead.

Capturing particular psychologies isn’t one of Matheson’s gifts, but he’s more effective with personalities. Miss Tanner, the touchy-feely spiritualist, sees the house as a groundbreaking case of multiple haunting. She believes she is contacted by one of the spirits, a man not as cruel as the others who desperately wants to be free. She, of course, is desperate to help him. Fisher, remembering his earlier experience, advises her not to open up so much to the forces in the house, but then he is afraid to open up at all. Barrett, meanwhile, has his own ideas about all of this, and spends much of his time constructing a machine that he says will neutralize the house in a matter of minutes. Edith, as an “outsider,” is caught between the confidence of her husband and the evidence of her own eyes. Each of the characters gets more than one nasty surprise as the story progresses.

One of the unusual aspects of this story is that all of Matheson’s characters are good, intelligent people, doing their best in their own ways to deal with the house, and none of them is entirely right or wrong. It’s true that the final revelation is, psychologically, weak, but otherwise the story has a satisfying resolution.

And the build-up is very good, establishing the characters and their internal conflicts, as well as the house itself, which includes a spooky steam room and a profane chapel. Matheson did his homework regarding spiritualism, and Florence’s “sittings” owe much to the history of well-known spiritualists. The research — and the inclusion of Barrett, the scientist, as a main character — keep the book grounded in the real world, even as Matheson uses the house to twist that reality in an evolution of the characters’ various theories.

I can also tell you this: not all of these characters will survive. Which seems fitting for a place called Hell House.

The Running Man (1982) by Stephen King

running-man - book.jpg♦♦

Stephen King has said that he wrote The Running Man in a week. He didn’t mention whether it was during his sleep.

I’ve only read two of his Richard Bachman books (the other was Rage) and neither is good. This one, at least, isn’t as offensively bad as his first. It’s just silly, pointlessly angry, and full of cardboard.

Set in 2025, when white men are still called “honkeys” and people still ask if you can “dig it,” the story follows Ben Richards, an out of work revolutionary whose wife is a prostitute and whose 18-month-old baby is dying from pneumonia. Desperately needing money to buy medicine for the little tyke, Richards applies as a contestant for a popular game show called “The Running Man.” The show is a way of ridding society of some of its more undesirable elements. Contestants are given a 12-hour head start (if they live long enough, they can go anywhere in the world), then pursued by merciless Hunters. Every hour they stay alive nets them a hundred bucks, which in this society is a lot of dough. But the game, as Richards discovers, is rigged. Each contestant must record two 10-minute video clips a day and post them to the Games office, where the postmarks are used to locate the runner.

It’s unclear how or why “The Running Man” is a popular show. Though frowned upon, it isn’t against the rules for the runner to take out innocent bystanders. In our present age of reality shows, a stray anti-homosexual comment by a reality star can start a firestorm of controversy — let alone the murder of a cop or a civilian. Here, killing a cop is worth another hundred bucks. King, mired in the late sixties/early seventies, takes the hippie hatred of cops to a new level: everyone hates them, deriving entertainment from their deaths. Why anyone would want to be a cop in this society is another matter. The whole milieu is contradictory and self-serving.

One funny segment has Ben helped out by what passes for the book’s only really sympathetic character, Bradley, a young black man and gang-member who tells him how the upper classes are systematically polluting the poor workforce with toxic air which they themselves are able to filter out with nose-plugs. No mouth-breathers over the poverty line, I suppose. And no one smart enough to realize that murdering your workforce is probably a bad idea, unless you want to do the work yourself. I don’t think King ever tells us the name of Bradley’s gang, but we can figure it out from the way they get all their information: they’re the dreaded and feared Library Gang. (Bradley’s mom is a hoot. She has no trouble pronouncing “carcinogens,” but “pooberty” gives her fits.)

This is a race for Ben’s life (and the life of his daughter); it should be exciting. Like Rage, though, King substitutes an amorphous anger for anything truly stirring. That might work for teenagers, but adults can see through it all too easily. Ben’s own anger is so self-defeating, for example, that he tends to get himself fired for insubordination rather than sucking it up to (a) keep his wife off the streets and (b) provide for his daughter. We’re not supposed to hold him accountable for this, though, because he’s a “righteous” man (another favorite word of King’s that actually doesn’t appear here so far as I can remember). He fights for justice, if not the American way.

It all leads to a comic book ending, with lots of blood and wet, hanging entrails. If that’s your thing, you may get a kick out of it.

To paraphrase King himself, two examples of the humorless thudding tract school of horror writing are his own Rage and The Running Man.

After Worlds Collide (1934) by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer

afterworldscollide♦♦♦♦

Perhaps because this novel originally appeared as a magazine serial, it is more of a page-turner than its predecessor. Then, too, cliffhangers were harder to come by in a book that assured us of the end of the world practically from page one. Here, the story is all about the survivors of Earth trying to make a new planet their home.

That planet is Bronson Beta, once the Earth-sized moon of Bronson Alpha. Bronson Alpha, if you recall, was a planet about the size of Neptune that smashed into Earth, utterly destroying it. The collision nudged Bronson Beta out of its orbit, but it was captured by the Sun in an elliptical orbit that, according to the best calculations, would take it nearly as far out in space as Mars and nearly as close to the sun as Venus. That means very cold winters and scorching summers. When the little band from Earth lands, Beta is on its way out.

But the coming cold isn’t their only worry. For one thing, their leader, Dr. Hendron, is showing the strain of his frenzied work to save at least a small portion of humanity. For another, Bronson Beta was previously inhabited, and its domed cities — still powered by some unknown energy — hint at the possibility of surviving natives, who might not take to human interlopers. Most worrisome of all, though, is that theirs was not the only ship from Earth to make it to Bronson Beta. At least one other made it, filled with “Asiatics” mostly (Russians and Japanese), with a few Germans thrown in for good measure, whose intent is to make Bronson Beta their own.

It’s hard to top Armageddon. But the really interesting thing about this sequel is that Wylie and Balmer don’t have to. When Worlds Collide focused so closely on the destructiveness of nature that they were left with an ideal “out” for this book: the destructiveness of mankind. As ludicrous as is the idea of a few hundred people on the surface of a planet the size of Earth making war on each other, it is, sadly, quite believable and, given the circumstances, all but inevitable. The circumstances being, that never will a better opportunity arise for world domination.

Like the first book, the authors mix their themes very well. Rebuilding, exploration and discovery, conflict, and romance — there’s always something going on. I could quibble. I could say the Bronson Betans aren’t as “alien” as they should have been; that the exploration of their cities isn’t nearly as intriguing as, for example, the exploration of the alien ship in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama. But that’s what it would be — quibbling. Clarke, after all, had an entire book to talk about one thing; for Wylie and Balmer, it’s but one piece of a much larger puzzle.

It’s a fun adventure and an exciting story and, if it has a flaw, it is that it isn’t, in the end, also a little scary. Without spoiling anything (I hope), let me just say that if you aren’t afraid to wipe Earth out of the cosmos in one book, you shouldn’t be afraid to make your characters work a little harder to make a home of their new planet.

This is a great companion for When Worlds Collide, with all the characters from the first book and even some of the jealousies: Tony, for instance, still wrestles with Eve’s feelings for the rugged and handsome David Ransdall. It also features a few new additions to the cast, far and away the best of whom is Marian Jackson, about whom it is said, “The girl might be mentally a moron; but morons…had their points.” Indeed they do. Hers is a small role, but one of critical importance, and the story always livens up when she’s present.

Star Wars (1976) by “George Lucas” (Alan Dean Foster)

star-wars-novel♦♦♦½

Novelization of the original film, credited to Lucas but actually ghostwritten by Alan Dean Foster.  Foster adds nothing of significance to the film, but doesn’t tinker with the story, characters, or dialogue either, making this an enjoyable, if clearly inferior, alternative.  In a far-off galaxy, farmboy Luke Skywalker is swept up in a rebellion against an evil empire led by the fearsome Darth Vader.  His allies — mystical Obi Wan Kenobi, tough Princess Leia, cynical Han Solo and Chewbacca, and the robots See Threepio and Artoo Detoo — provide variety and humor in a (cuckoo) clockwork plot that delivers lots of action and excitement.  A good book in the dicey category of novelizations.

When Worlds Collide (1933) by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer

When_Worlds_Collide_Book_Cover♦♦♦♦

All those other apocalyptic books with their puny viruses and piddling nuclear wars have nothing on When Worlds Collide, which is about the smashing of Earth itself into jagged little pieces.

Or it would be — if physics respected the three-act structure.

The book begins with the man who is carrying the fate of Mankind in his briefcase: photographic plates of two large planetary objects — one about the size of Neptune, one Earth-sized — that are on a collision course with the third planet in our little solar system. Yeah, that’s us. And ain’t nothin in the world can stop them. So what is going to happen to our planet is, to coin a phrase, written in the stars from page one. Well, at least there’ll be no more ads for Viagra.

The story — the one with some reasonable margin for error — is about the men and women who refuse to accept this fate. It turns out, you see, that the smaller body is not only about the same size as Earth, but also very Earth-like. If their calculations are correct, it will survive the collision of the other two planets and take up an orbit of its own about the Sun. So it’s just a matter of building a ship that can make the crossing. There’s just one catch: the ship envisioned can only house about a hundred people.

According to the blurb on the back of my mid-seventies paperback, this caveat “touch[s] off a savage struggle among the world’s most powerful men for the million-to-one chance of survival.” You’d think that it would, wouldn’t you? But, if you were anything other than a blurb writer, you’d probably want to read the book first before announcing it to the world. The fact is, no such thing ever happens.

In fact, this is one of the curious things about this novel. I could also have said “quaint.” “Charming” is another matter. It has that old-timey faith in science and scientists as the saviors of our world. It comes by this honestly — it was published in 1933 — but it makes, at times, for some…interesting…developments. For instance, government plays no role in the building of the spaceship. It is conceived by Dr. Cole Hendron (whose honorific is of the Ph, not the M, variety), and he alone gathers about him the people he believes he needs to succeed. He alone will decide who goes and who stays. Meanwhile, the President of the United States rallies the populace to die another day.

That most of “us” have several opportunities to die is determined by the fact that the invading planets make two passes of the Earth, not just one. The first is a near miss. But even a near miss, with the combined mass of Neptune and Earth, is catastrophic. Tidal waves, earthquakes, floods, volcanic activity — the world is torn apart. Well, all but torn apart; the actual rending comes later. In between, reduced in large part to barbarism, the remaining population finds more traditional ways to kill each other.

This is great stuff.

Keeping the home fires burning are Tony Drake and the chief’s daughter, Eve. But theirs is a romance with serious complications. If only a hundred people can survive, how can they justify monogamy? Tony, a simpler soul than Eve, thinks he can justify it just fine; Eve is more realistic. Enter David Ransdell, a real man’s man, whose appreciation of Eve’s charms is not altogether unrequited.

Flipping my paperback over, we find on the front cover the bold statement: “America’s most famous science fiction classic that ranks with 1984 and Brave New World.” Except that this book is largely forgotten and the other two are still considered classics. This, I’m here to tell you, isn’t quite fair. Literarily, no, When Worlds Collide isn’t in the same league. In terms of its vision, though, and its remarkable evocation of utter disaster, it actually is. This is a book in which shit not only happens, it obliterates practically everything.

I’m going to see the 1951 movie later today, but I can already tell you, if ever there was a story ripe for a remake, this is it. And it could be glorious.

The General’s Daughter (1992) by Nelson DeMille

generalsdaughter-book♦♦♦♦½

The hook is hard to resist. The body of Captain Ann Campbell, daughter of General Joe Campbell, is found — naked, spreadeagled, and staked to the ground — on a Fort Hadley rifle range. The rope around her neck indicates that she was strangled and her condition suggests rape. Paul Brenner, of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division, knows the bizarre scene must have an equally strange explanation. His job is to find it, and the murderer.

Nelson DeMille makes this stuff look easy, but that’s all smoke and mirrors. There’s nothing easy about writing a compelling mystery, especially one like this, which could easily have slipped into prurience. But this is a book that, as its title tells us, is about Captain Campbell — her life, history, and personality. Though she is dead when we first see her, it is about bringing her to life and showing us how she met her tragic fate.

And so, like any mystery, information is paramount: when we get it, how we get it, and whom we get it from. DeMille doles it out beautifully, with a mix of detective work and forensics, interviews with suspects and acquaintances, and clues in Campbell’s personal effects. As the suspense builds, so does our understanding of Captain Campbell.

It’s a sordid story, but that’s not to say the book is depressing. It begins on a humorous note, as Paul discovers that fate has put him on the same base and in the same room with an old lover, Cynthia Sunhill. Their previous encounter didn’t end well, but Paul has carried a torch for her ever since. Because Cynthia is a rape specialist, she is assigned to work alongside Paul on the Campbell case. Their personal and professional interaction provides just the relief the Campbell case needs.

And then there’s Paul himself, who is like an early, somewhat toned down version of the author’s John Corey character. Also a loose cannon, also smart-mouthed, also a man’s man, Paul, however, is military, dealing with a military crime with mostly military suspects; it helps keep him from indulging in some of the more outrageous behavior that Corey gets away with. I don’t think he’s ultimately any more sensitive than Corey, but maybe his sensitivity is a little more evident here. He’s funny and tough and his heart is in the right place.

It’s a description that applies to the book itself. This is a page-turner with heart. The crime, we learn, is far more devastating that it at first appears (which is saying something), and DeMille handles it all with tact and grace.

The Devil’s Labyrinth (2007) by John Saul

Devil's_Labyrinth_bookcover

It should be a sin to read this book.

In fact, it is, for only indolence will keep you turning the pages. The Devil’s Labyrinth, thy name is Sloth.

Ryan McIntyre gets himself beat up at school, prompting his mom, Teri, to send him to Catholic School. It could be worse: with his soldier father dead, Ryan’s mom has started seeing Tom, and Ryan, who doesn’t like Tom at all, is happy to get away from him. Oh, sure, St. Isaac’s is a strange place — one kid slits a woman’s throat shortly before Ryan arrives and ghostly screams wake Ryan up in the night — but where else can a geek like Ryan find a beautiful girlfriend in two days? We know she’s a hummer because her name is Melody.

Melody has a roommate (no, not Josie or Valerie). Sofia. Sounds Italian, or Latin. Lusty. She’s a bit of a bad girl. She gets caught one night with her boyfriend’s hand in her blouse by a no-nonsense nun who drags her off to a secret chapel in the maze of tunnels beneath the school’s sprawling campus. The mysterious Father Sebastian, knowledgeable in the arts of exorcism (or so the nun thinks), performs the ancient ritual on Sofia, purifying her soul (or so the nun thinks). But we know and Sofia knows that Father Sebastian hasn’t exorcised anything; instead, he’s done rather the opposite and called forth the evil in her soul. And Melody wonders why her roommate isn’t the same when she returns.

Meanwhile, a couple of Muslim terrorists search for a precious object and the Pope himself takes an interest in the wondrous doings at St. Isaac’s.

Now, just how dumb is all this? Well, imagine a nun (strict, but devoted to God) who sees nothing wrong with an exorcism that includes a giant crucifix carved to a point just above Christ’s head, suspended upside down over the “sinner,” then multiply that tenfold. That’s how dumb all of this is. It’s only through multiplication that you can arrive at Muslims who reject the Catholic faith not because its tenants are false — indeed, they’re demonstrably true — but because Allah can beat up God.

This is a book in which good people have convenient “feelings” about people and things that are never wrong. Like Ryan’s dislike of Tom. One particularly idiotic scene has Teri lying to a couple of cops because of a “feeling” she has about someone else in the room. This comes after one of the cops had a “feeling” Teri was in trouble. Teri supposedly loved her husband, Ryan’s father, who was Good and Brave and Pure (he was a soldier, after all), but unlike Ryan, she can’t sense anything amiss about Tom, who is, underneath, nothing at all like her husband.

Oh, and there’s an equally convenient ghost that pops up now and again.

The Devil’s Labyrinth shifts point of view so often that it’s only barely accurate to say that this is Ryan’s story. But it’s an awfully shallow story, with a weak and unappealing hero. Things happen to Ryan, he doesn’t do much of anything. He doesn’t fight the boys who put him in the hospital to begin with, he doesn’t have to work for Melody, he gets pushed around by everything and everyone — all he ever learns is that supernatural forces are a lot stronger than he is. (Sofia, at least, learns to enjoy eating maggots.)

Saul’s “theology” is just as shallow. He raises an interesting question: what if the evil in all men’s souls could be drawn out and destroyed? Having raised the question, though, Saul has no intention of answering it. He doesn’t even go near it, in fact. The only character it really seems to matter to (he’s part of the Church) spends his time creaming over the idea of it without ever thinking about what it would mean. He thinks it would be wonderful, but I think he might change his tune when he found himself suddenly unemployed.

Secular readers should avoid this book religiously. Catholic readers should be prepared to confess it on Sunday.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by L. Frank Baum

WizardofOz♦♦♦

First of all, allow me to clear away some distractions. The movie, for one thing. I never read this book as a kid, but I’ve seen the movie a time or two. The movie is better. I don’t think the filmmakers were concerned about redefining the fairy tale for modern audiences the way Baum was. But more importantly, they took an episodic story and gave it much greater unity, which brought with it a satisfying narrative arc. I was disappointed with the Wicked Witch episode in the book, but only because it was just another peak in the overall cardiogram of the narrative.

I also found Baum’s intent, which he spells out in the Introduction, quite puzzling. He seems to feel about classic fairy tales much the way Dr. Wertham felt about comic books: that they were much too violent for children. Yet at least they were up front about it. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is chock full of violence and horror. The fates of the Scarecrow (before Dorothy saves him) and the Tin Woodman (before she meets him) are terrifying. Does it really matter that they are treated so matter-of-factly? I’m not sure, but that may make it worse.

And then I had to go and read the Afterword in my edition, by a man named Peter Glassman. Among the book’s many virtues, Glassman writes, is that the “capitalist ideal of the free market is in evidence when the Wizard tells Dorothy, ‘You have no right to expect me to send you back to Kansas unless you do something for me in return.'” Of course, I had already noted the quid pro quo nature of Oz, but seeing it presented as a virtue was too much. I happen to believe that “capitalist ideal” is an oxymoron. It’s the capitalist ideal that has Dorothy starting the book on a farm in Kansas where everything, even the grass — even her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry — is gray. It’s a place where only a child can find a reason to laugh.

The truth is, I liked the book. I didn’t love it, though. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland it ain’t. I especially enjoyed the characters of Dorothy’s companions: the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion, who each want something they think they lack, but who, of course, already possess it. The way Baum dovetails this with the Wizard and his “gifts” is simply brilliant (and it’s far superior to what we find in the film).

On the other hand, while the interchangeability of their various adventures might be good for very young readers (since it doesn’t require of them much in the way of memory or reasoning), it isn’t so good for adults. I can appreciate Baum’s desire to avoid the overt moralizing of classic fairy tales, but it’s as if, when he made that decision, he threw out unity along with it, thinking, perhaps, that structure itself is inherently moralistic. It would explain why Dorothy’s quest to the Emerald City doesn’t in fact conclude in the Emerald City. This kind of book doesn’t conclude, it ends. And where and when it ends is but a matter of authorial whim.

Oz is a fast read, but not a particularly light one. Part of this is that Baum’s style isn’t as airy as he might have wished it to be. His grim description of Kansas sets a tone even the wonders of Oz can’t entirely lift. Fortunately, that has its compensations. Regardless of Baum’s intent, it’s the book’s darkness that makes it compelling. This book naturally shows up on lists of fantasy books, but does it also show up on lists of dark fantasy? It should. Loneliness, abandonment, dismemberment, slavery, deception — it’s a cornucopia of the horrible. In the movie, the Wizard is known as the “Great and Powerful”; in the book, he is the “Great and Terrible.” It’s a distinction that applies to the stories, as well.